The HONNE problem.
Disaster strikes when you least expect it. I was in my bedroom, readying myself to buy a ticket to Honne’s US tour, when I had a calamitous revelation that would shift my very orientation to the world. Excited at the prospect of seeing a band I’d been following since their EPs, I was eagerly clicking around when I landed on their artist profile. Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw next. At first, I thought it was a mistake, yet as I Googled around for some sort of reassurance, I kept on running into the same horrifying fact over and over again: Honne wasn’t Asian— they were two white guys.
First there was denial. There was simply no way that Honne could be anything but Asian. After all, their albums are a panoply of Asian signifiers: kanji litter their EPs and album covers, Love Me/Love Me Not depicts an Asian woman looking at herself in the mirror, and even their name is based on a Japanese phrase meaning “true feelings and desires.” Then came embarrassment. For years, if you had asked me who my favorite Asian act was, Honne would’ve been a top contender. I even once credited them with opening me up to the world of Asian-American music — showing me that the music of our diaspora didn’t need to be limited to the hyper-earnest tunes of AJ Rafael or the party anthems of the Far East Movement (no knock to either of these icons, I listened to both avidly growing up). Eventually, embarrassment gave way to rage, and I finally understood why Dante had reserved his last rung in Hell for the great traitors of yore. There’s no crime more painful than betrayal.
The years passed and I tried my best to move on, to grow to accept this unsettling fact for what it is. It might’ve worked if this didn’t keep on happening. Machine Girl, the Brooklyn based electronic duo— whose song titles include “かわいい post rave maximalist,” “覆面調査員 (gabbertrap mix),” and “うずまき” — turned out to be two white guys. So was bit-crushing wizard Yabujin, my dearly beloved Porter Robinson, and Dan Mason ダン·メイソン, who’s written songs like “partly 曇った.” Honne’s seemingly isolated instance of Asian-fishing revealed itself as an epidemic within the electronic music scene. I didn’t know who or what I could trust.
Upon reflection, it’s unsurprising that the world of electronic music would be prone to this sort of Asian fetish. For a long time, East Asia was seen as primitive, stuck in the mystical ways of the Oriental past. Yet in the post-WWII period, as Asian nations would begin to technologically and economically outcompete Western countries, this narrative became untenable. The West would respond to this shift in the global order by reframing the East through the language of mechanized industriousness and futurity. This would help explain Asia’s successes while continuing to justify its inferiority. The idea was that Asia, and by extension Asian people, might be technologically ahead—but only because they lacked the liberal subjectivity of the white Westerner and were essentially robots absent of any personality or soul.
It’s an association that would be reinforced throughout our mediascape. Just think of the Tokyo-inspired skyscape of Blade Runner, filled with its looming Asian holograms (despite the fact that no actual Asian people seem to inhabit the world itself); or the heavily industrialized corpo-state of neo-Seoul in Cloud Atlas; or the dystopian world of Stray, which not only takes place in what is basically a knock-off Kowloon Walled City, but also goes out of its way to racialize its robots by having them wear traditional rice hats. Academics would eventually coin a term for this phenomenon “techno-Orientalism.”
For these electronic musicians, as well as these films and games, these stereotypes serve as convenient worldbuilding tools. The presence of kanji lettering, Asian bodies, and samples featuring Asian languages reassures us that these songs really are from an alien, distant future (i.e. Asia). By hiding their own whiteness, these artists aim to legitimize the authenticity of their sound, as if this music could only be produced by those who are already a mechanized Other. The problem is, this maneuver can’t help but participate in a logic that positions Asian culture as mere passive accoutrement. In this creative exercise, we’re reduced to caricaturish unthinking automata—our bodies and culture deemed little more than hollow costumes ready to be put on and consumed. In many ways, this charade only works precisely to the extent that we’re dehumanized, made into symbolic stand-ins for The Machine. In response, I’d like to propose an alternative strategy.
Some alternatives to pretending to be Asian
For any musician looking to assure us of the alien roboticism of their sound, here are a few ideas that you can use, free of charge:
First, if you want to employ a futuristic language in your album covers and it’s not important that your listeners understand that language (because let’s be real, how many of your listeners do you think can read kanji?), you can simply make one up! You don’t have to treat real linguistic markers as alien symbols, since you can invent actual alien symbols.
Second, if you have the urge to put an Asian woman on your album covers—and you don’t actually collaborate with Asian women—just don’t! Put on a robot, or a stylized image of yourself, or maybe (just maybe) start to actually work with Asian musicians.
Finally, if you can’t help but do these things, consider putting a sort of Parental Advisory label on your album that makes it clear that you’re actually two white guys. That way, you can at least preempt the jump scare that is the truth.
Maybe this seems overly dramatic. But I promise that these suggestions are for the sake of the musician as well as the listener. Because at the end of the day, the greatest crime that this techno-orientalist aesthetic commits isn’t that it’s deceptive or appropriative—it’s that it’s lazy and uninteresting. After all the anguish that goes into creating and refining a song that one feels is truly their own, defaulting to these uninspired stereotypes feels like an injustice to the music itself. A flaccid climax to an otherwise thrilling and well-earned resolution. I hope that these artists would do better than these cookie-cutter tropes. If not for our sake, then at the very least for the music they worked so hard to create.